Socialism is the Catchup Mechanic
By: Sam Liberty
At times it feels like our government, our economy, and our institutions emerged from a roiling primordial soup, welling up from the collective unconsciousness or evolving over time from random mutations. The truth is, our society is heavily designed.
It’s not just the founding fathers at the continental congress who thought hard about how to build a government of, for, and by the people, but the drafting of our constitution is a fantastic and very direct example of design on a mammoth scale.
When congress passes a law, when a local city government votes on zoning for a new development, when the Federal Reserve Chair decides to raise interest rates (or not), they are engaging in design. And when we vote, we are not just responsible citizens. We are designers — and we should begin to think about ourselves this way.
As a game designer and consultant on games for impact, I think about design patterns a great deal. I believe there is much to learn from the world of game design when it comes to building our society and economy in a way that is fair, engaging, and rewarding to take part in for all its player-citizens. If we understand that society is designed — not an accident — and that in many ways game design is just good design, we have laid a healthy foundation for what is to come.
I’m not the first to draw a comparison between social institutions and games. In recent years, our politicians have been especially focused on how society is like a specific type of game: a rigged one.
We don’t want our institutions to be rigged any more than we want our games to be.
But to understand whether the game is rigged and then unrig it, we first need to discover how our society is actually, and not just rhetorically, game-like in the first place.
How Society Is Like (and Not Like) a Game
Many real-life processes have game-like structures. Normally when I write about games it’s not especially important to discuss what a game is, but in this case, the arguments I intend to make are so specific and follow from the gameness (as opposed to the playfulness) of games so directly, I think it’s important to define our terms upfront. If you are already a game scholar, feel free to jump ahead a few paragraphs.
One of the finest definitions of a game is Bernard Suit’s attempt in his book “The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.” He says:
“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].”
To translate, all games must have the following components to be a game:
- An objective
- Obstacles to achieving that objective
- Actions permitted to the player to achieve the objective
- A playful attitude
It’s easy enough to layer this definition (or most of it, as we’ll see) onto our daily life. In fact, the hard part is trying to prove how life isn’t a game, not how it is. After all, we have an objective when we go to work: to earn money. The money is not just handed to us though, there are obstacles in our paths (least of which is getting hired in the first place). In order to remain employed, there are many of rules (explicit and implicit) that we must follow. Only some work actions are rewarded.
When you take into account other goals, such as earning raises and being promoted, a good amount of strategy enters into the picture and it begins to look a lot like play. Of course, what is lacking is the lusory attitude. We do not follow the rules of society just because we want to. Work is not voluntary. It is usually not playful. There are real stakes — our lives and livelihoods — and we cannot just quit at any time. This is the difference between work and play. If you think about our other institutions (the media, the stock market, the government, the military, healthcare, social services, civic activism, the courts, the arts) you will find they follow the same pattern.
Now that we have shown how our institutions follow most of the formal elements of games, we can begin to talk about what kind of game it is that we want to be playing.There are many characteristics of games that we might not want in real life. Many losers and just one winner comes to mind as one. So what aspects of a well-designed game do we want in our institutions?
Above, I stated that all games have an objective, and perhaps implied that the objective in our societal game is to earn money. This is misleading however, and not exactly true. After all, games, unlike society (we hope), must eventually end. Some event triggers the endgame, the “prelusory goal” is reached as Suits would say, and play stops. Points are tallied and a winner is declared. In real life, this does not happen.
You would also be right to question the assumption that everyone’s goal in life should be to simply acquire wealth. This is a staggeringly cynical view of the world, and I am not comfortable espousing it even for the sake of argument. So if this isn’t the goal, what is?
Even if you don’t subscribe to the highly mercantile view that the goal of life is to acquire money, I think most people in our society agree that we do strive for something: quality of life. If we hope for anything, it’s that our quality of life will gradually improve, and that the quality of life of our friends, neighbors, and children will improve too. This is the American Dream after all: leaving your kids with more than you had and perhaps making a positive mark on the world.
Note that the American Dream has nothing to do with vanquishing others or “winning” at all costs. It’s about the betterment of yourself, and if others do well too, we are glad — or at least we should be. The conception of the economy as a competitive game with a fixed end (or closed game as game scholars call them) is a poor one. I would assert that we should treat society and our economy as a cooperative game with no set endpoint (i.e. an open game). In these games, such as volleying a ping pong ball as long as possible or games of pretend like “house,” the goal is simply to maintain the premise for as long as we can.
If we conceive as the American Dream in this way, the objective of the game becomes clear: to constantly improve the lives of ourselves and our countrymen for as long as possible.
Fairness, the Coin Flip, and Instant Replay
To be good, a game must be fair. We understand this instinctively. This is why we punish cheaters. It’s why we invented the starting gun, impartial dice, umpires, and perhaps the most anal-retentive form of enforced fairness ever devised: instant replay. In order to feel invested in and satisfied by a game, we must know that it was fair — that we all followed the same rules, and that no one player gamed the system or was unfairly benefited by its design. One could make an interesting political point by starting players with uneven supplies of money in, say, Monopoly, but the resulting game would be frustrating, boring, and pointless. It would not be fair.
This is what we mean by fairness: everyone is treated the same under the rules of the game.
A game can still be fair if it includes randomness (like a die roll), so long as everyone is effected by chance in the same way, and the level of randomness is not so high that it makes our choices meaningless (more on this later).
Also note that fairness doesn’t always mean equitability. I could play Michael Jordan in one-on-one basketball, and the rules of the game treat us both equally. But we are not equal. It is not a fair match, which is a different idea from a fair game, and is why there are handicaps in golf and other games that include an option for auto-balance.
We like fair games because they let the best rise to the top and show us what we are made of. When we know everyone began running from the same spot at the exact same time, the results of the race are indisputable. The winner ran fastest. Roger Caillois discusses this at length in his foundational game studies work Man, Play and Games, calling games that focus on competition and fairness games of “Aegon.” In capitalism, this is valued highly, and it should be no surprised that in western societies, especially America, we tend to gravitate toward highly competitive games. But the competition would be meaningless if the rules of the game were not fair. Professional football goes to almost insane lengths to ensure fairness, and people still complain about bad calls.
What Happens in Candy Land Stays in Candy Land
Another highly prized element of game design is that of meaningful decisions. Not all games include these, but without them, the role of the player is negligible. This exists on a spectrum, with purely random games like a lottery occupying the far left, purely strategic games like Chess occupying the far right, and a game that blends luck and skill like poker sitting somewhere in the middle.
The decision in poker to check, raise, or fold, and by how much to raise, is incredibly meaningful because it will effect the size of the pot as well as the outcome of the showdown. It gives rise to many interesting strategies such as bluffing, slow-rolling, and playing pot odds. In this sense, poker is an incredibly well designed game. It is also fair and contains more than a little randomness.
By comparison, Candy Land is a game with no decisions at all. You simply draw a card each turn and progress along the path according to the card. The game of Candy Land has some value to a child, since it teaches the form of games and play, how to follow procedure, wait your turn, and handle winning and losing. It is also a fair game. It just doesn’t require any decision making, and thus even children soon lose interest in it. It is not a good game.
In this way, the “meaningful decision” test can be thought of as skill-testing. Knowing when to make certain choices is a skill, and the game is designed to reward this skill (and others). Thinking about skill in this way, we can see that even games that don’t contain obvious choices, per se, actually do contain a lot of meaningful decisions. A foot race, for example, tests the skills of speed and endurance. But we choose our running form, when to pour on speed or hold back, and so on.
In good games, every little thing we do is meaningful, and we understand how it is meaningful before we play. It is important that skill be rewarded for a game to be engaging.
Society Is Broken
When a game has a major defect that makes it unplayable (or effectively unplayable) we say that it is “broken.” This could be a glitch in its programming or accidental dead end, but it can also be a defect in its design that makes certain strategies moot, certain actions too powerful, or others too weak. If we view society as a game, we can see several areas where it is broken. These are easy to spot when we think of the above notions of fairness, meaningful decisions, and interactivity.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing society, what makes in so incredibly unfair, is its feedback loops.
Positive Feedback Loops
Feedback loops are a necessary component of every game, but they are present everywhere. Think about the automatic thermostat in your home. Mine is set to 68 degrees. When it drops too far below that temperature, the heater kicks on and causes the temperature to rise. When my home reaches 68 degrees (or a little above), the heater turns off. This is a negative feedback loop. The heater is triggered in order to stop a process (the house getting too hot or getting too cold). Now imagine your thermostat is broken. When the temperature drops below 68, the air conditioner is triggered. When it rises above 68, the heater turns on. This would be a positive feedback loop, one that is a force multiplier on a process. And one that happens to be disastrous.
Right now, our society is like the broken thermostat.
If you think about it, you can probably spot many feedback loops (both positive and negative) in the games you’ve played. There is a strong positive feedback loop in Monopoly. The more money you have, the more readily you can acquire property. The more property you have, the more rent you are paid and the more money you acquire. More money leads to more property, and so on and so forth.
In game design, we call this phenomenon the runaway leader effect. And it is easy to see how it applies to our economy. Sometimes, it works just like Monopoly: more money allows you to acquire more property, which increases your earnings. Other times, it’s a positive feedback loop that hurts the people in “last place”: the poor. You have no money so you can’t pay your bills. You are then charged fees and penalties because of your unpaid bills and bounced checks, so you have even less money. Or, you are evicted from your home and your ability to cope with having less money is drastically reduced. These upward and downward spirals constitute a game-breaking defect, and if we were designing a game from scratch to be as engaging as possible, we would take great pains to combat them.
Stemming the Runaway Leader
The solution to the runaway leader problem is actually fairly obvious: introducing a negative feedback loop to counter the positive one. This is often called a “catchup mechanic,” because it theoretically enables players in last place to catch up with the players in first.
Monopoly lacks a strong catchup mechanic. Settlers of Catan has a feature called “the robber” that players can use to harm one another occasionally. The best strategy is to use the robber to target the player in first, which acts as a brake and lets others catch up. This doesn’t always happen, however, because the robber’s activation is governed by chance and politics.
Other games such as Mario Kart feature exceedingly powerful catchup mechanics like the blue shell (more on that later). For now, the most important thing to understand is that to counter a positive feedback loop, negative feedback is necessary. Taking resources from the leaders and redistributing it to the stragglers is one such approach. Another is providing consolations to players when they fall behind. Unemployment Insurance is a good real-world example of negative feedback to help people who fall behind.
So why do we care about catchup mechanics at all? Why are they necessary?Don’t they punish the leaders for being good at the game? This is a question that every game designer wrestles with: How strong should the negative feedback be, and is it needed at all? For the good of the game, the answer is usually yes.
First, the leader did not always get there because of their skill.
Many games are highly luck-dependent, and a leader can easily emerge because of a lucky break early on.
If a strong positive feedback loop is in place, the player who gets even slightly lucky in the first minutes of play can build an unsurmountable lead. When you follow this idea to its logical conclusion, it becomes pointless to play the game at all. You could simply play the first turn or two of play to see who emerges as the lucky leader and then stop the game there, since there is no way to catch up.
Even in skill-based games, catchup mechanics play an important role. Much like the early lucky break, players can suffer from early small mistakes that positive feedback loops magnify. The same problem rears its head: why play the rest of the game at all?
If there is no way to catch up, the players in last place become hopeless and disengaged. This is not what you want as a game designer, and it’s certainly not what you want in your economy. But given the rising rate of discouraged workers, it is what we’re seeing now.
Even worse, the “players” in the game of life do not start off on equal footing. A recent Washington Post article shows how poor people who do everything right still do not do better than rich people who do everything wrong. Unequal starting resources is a cardinal sin in game design, but in a free society it’s unavoidable, unfortunately, and cannot be designed out. This makes positive feedback loops even more disastrous, further increasing the sense of hopelessness that afflicts some citizens.
Go Directly to Jail: Mathematical Elimination and Time Spent Not Playing
When a player is still in the game but has no hope of winning, they are said to be mathematically eliminated. Such a player becomes disengaged from play, and may quit. The best case scenario is that they will continue playing out of a sense of duty to the other players, but this is not an ideal play situation. It is not fun for the winners or the losers, and a game that is not fun to lose is a failed design.
We see this in real life all the time: a person falls so far behind that their path forward becomes hopeless. They become disengaged from society and may even “quit.” Although suicide and substance abuse-linked deaths are serious and growing concerns, they are not the only way a player can quit the economy. They could turn to crime, become institutionalized, die early because of their access to health care, or simply become discouraged workers who drop out of the economy. The root cause of all these outcomes is a positive feedback loop that punishes the poor for being poor and causes them to lose hope.
Our society does make attempts to help these people from falling off the board, so to speak. We have social security, medicaid and medicare, welfare, SNAP, and unemployment insurance to name a few of the larger programs. These programs together seem to be enough to keep people in the game (i.e. alive) most of the time, but does not provide them with a strong enough boost to escape the downward spiral. They may not be eliminated in total, but they are mathematically eliminated, and they sense this.
Stronger negative feedback is necessary, most likely in the form of more robust social services.
It is a truism in game design that if a player is not playing, they can’t have fun. This is why over the last 20 years or so player elimination has become anathema to the modern board game aesthetic, and why we as designers do our best to reduce player downtime. Above, I discussed mathematical elimination, but there are many reasons that a player may become disengaged because of time spent not playing. Of the ones that apply to our lives in the real world, the most pertinent are probably lack of resources and lack of options.
Imagine a game where a wide array of options are available to players. World of Warcraft is one, but the stock market is another. In these games, the only limit on player action appears to be the ingenuity of the player, but this is not actually true. The options available to a wealthy investor in the stock market far outstrip the options at the disposal of a middle class family. This is because the middle class family lacks the financial resources of the investor, but also because they lack access to information about how the game is played, and because they cannot afford to take the same risks. One could argue that private loans solve this problem, but I defy you to name a bank that grants loans to working class families so that they can invest in the stock market. In this way, some of the most lucrative sectors of our economy are essentially shut for average people.
If you live at or near the poverty line, this is magnified exponentially. With no money in savings, all effort, time, and money is spent maintaining the status quo, and almost none is spent playing for the objective as we defined it above. This helps explain why people feel so disconnected from the economy, the government, and the American Dream. They recognize that they are not playing at the same table as the elites. One wonders if they’re even playing by the same rules.
In Monopoly, near the end game after the wealth has been funneled to the lucky players who benefited from the positive feedback loop, the remaining players see their options fade away. They have nothing to bargain with, no mechanism to shift the balance in their favor, no grand strategy to execute. Finally, they take the dice and roll hoping to go directly to jail just to avoid paying rent for a few rounds. It’s no wonder that in the real world, so many people do just that once their options have evaporated.
So what does one do in this situation? One popular strategy in competitive games is to team up.
In game design, politics has a very specific definition, and it has nothing to do with lawmaking or running for office. It only exists in games with three or more sides (like most board games), and it happens when one side has the ability to directly harm or help another to the benefit or detriment of a third. Think about the game RISK. If Player A attacks Player B, Player C benefits because their enemy has become weaker. So it behooves all players to convince their opponents to fight amongst themselves instead of welcoming conflict. This is the essence of politics.
In RISK, and many other games, politics are the catchup mechanic. You can trust players to attack or gang up on the leader. That’s reliable negative feedback. The player in first loses status and a new leader emerges, who is then targeted by the other players. It’s a grand game of King of the Hill.
Can we rely on politics to balance the game of life? The answer is no. First, people with less resources, even pooled together, have little ability to attack or gang up on those with a lot. Unions are one example of the many uniting to combat the powerful few, and there is a track record of success there, but by itself it is not enough to break the positive feedback loop that makes the rich richer.
The fact that unions have been degraded over the past few decades and wages have stagnated during this same time speaks volumes. Unions work until they don’t. Politics by itself is not strong enough to break the cycle.
In the real world, people with more resources tend to be the ones most adept at using politics to their advantage. They have more time, more material, more connections, and more to lose. Those who lag behind have the advantage of numbers, certainly, but using force is not an acceptable strategy in civilized society. It would be a bloody business, and after all, the rich have a trump card: the police and military.
The only reasonable path is to use the ballot to redesign the system itself, incorporating stronger negative feedback loops.
The Dreaded Blue Shell
As alluded to earlier, one game in particular is famous for particularly strong negative feedback: the Mario Kart series by Nintendo. It is a racing game that features popular characters from the Super Mario Bros. universe. In each course, the players race in whimsical karts, jockeying for position and grabbing power-ups along the way to help them best their opponents. These power-ups are the negative feedback loop in Mario Kart. The further behind you are, the more powerful items appear for you to gain. If you are in first place, only the weakest items are available to you.
In general, this is smart design, but negative feedback can go too far. The most notorious item in the game is the blue shell. When used, it shoots forward and unerringly strikes the player in first place, causing them to wipe out. The problem with this is that it’s so drastic a punishment and happens so frequently that being in first place is often a liability. Being good at the game is a bad thing! This is also true in games with strong politics. It’s a far better strategy to be in second place than first, since the leader will inevitably be targeted. Skill in the game becomes irrelevant and all that matters is luck, timing, and convincing others to target your opponents with negative feedback.
So what’s the problem with this? After all, it keeps people on an even plane, and that’s the point of this exercise, right? Not exactly. Fairness is important, but so are meaningful decisions. If all your gains can be eliminated in one fell swoop at any time simply because you’re succeeding, the decisions you made become irrelevant. And again, there is no reason to continue playing.
The lesson: negative feedback must be used with care for the game to have any meaning.
There is an economic sweet spot that has yet to be discovered. Progressive income tax is an important tool, but recent tax cuts for the wealthy undercut this. Spending on social services are another important component , but how much is enough? Europe shows that taxes can be quite progressive and a great deal more can be spent on social services and guaranteed benefits without destroying the profit motive that powers a capitalist society’s engine. This is useful data, but in order to fine tune our system, we must iterate.
Conclusion: Think Like a Designer. Vote Like a Designer
Game design is an iterative process. You design, build, and test over and over again. By seeing what works, what doesn’t, and what’s fun, and then obsessively tweaking our design, we occasionally strike gold.
Billions of plays of millions of games over the years have given us a set of best practices and ideas, but there is no hard and fast rule that applies to all games, and one never knows the effect of a change, even a small one, until it is tested. This is because games are above all rules-based systems, and in systems everything is connected.
A small change in a game’s rules has effects that ripple out into all aspects of play. The same is true of our economy, except that it’s infinitely more complex.
That’s why we need to think like game designers wherever we are. You may be voting on one small issue that effects one small slice of your community, but its effects will ripple.
Thinking like a game designer in the voting booth is not easy. It requires knowledge about a subject and the ability to analyze decisions and think about its consequences. Applying this kind of thinking may not be simple, but it is key to ensuring a better, fairer future. Our democracy and our economy only function when all its citizens are engaged. We know that hope and change are powerful motivators. If we’re serious about delivering either, we must heed the basic design lessons that make games so engaging. Only by seriously applying them to our institutions can we ensure they serve everyone equally.
Sam Liberty is co-founder of Extra Ludic (extraludic.com) a consultancy focussed on serious games for real-world impact. He teaches playful design and game criticism and theory at Northeastern University.
NOTE: This article is the beginning of a larger work, and I welcome comments and criticism. There are many concepts and examples that were left on the cutting room floor. Did I leave out an important connection between games and society? Or did I get something totally wrong? Please let me know with your responses and highlights, and if you’re comfortable doing so recommend this article to others for feedback. Thank you for reading.